Life A User's Manual, let's talk about one of the most distinctive things about Perec's prose in this book: the extraordinary tangibility of it. To explain what I mean, let's go back to one of Perec's very first books, titled simply Things. This is a great, small book about two young French professionals who have just begun making their way in life. The book is titled Things because that's just what the two protagonists are obsessed with--things, namely chic consumer goods. Perec's protagonists are in their late 20s, the age when one's youthful aspirations for a romantic, bohemian life are beginning to seriously clash with one's aspirations for a place of some status in society. To put it simply, they're torn between a life of nothing and a life of things. Clearly, Perec was aware of the powerful force that could be exerted by consumer objects in a capitalistic society . . ." />

The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from this site:


Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

For low prices on Las Vegas shows visit LasVegas.ShowTickets.com

You Say

  • Graatch: Where are Bae Suah's translated novels available?
  • Yuki: Silly review. His ghostly dialogue has been part of the desi
  • WD Clarke: I just stumbled upon this 5 years late, but I appreciate the
  • Lance Edmonds: I agree with the above comment. I've regulated him to litera
  • Andrija F.: The novel's so bland it doesn't and can't provoke deep insig
  • Will: I saw that and just made the face you make when someone says
  • Johnb440: Hmm it looks like your site ate my first comment it was extr

Group Reads

The Tunnel

Fall Read: The Tunnel by William H. Gass

A group read of the book that either "engenders awe and despair" or "[goads] the reader with obscenity and bigotry," or both. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Naked Singularity

Summer Read: A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

Fans of Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo: A group read of the book that went from Xlibris to the University of Chicago Press. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Life Perec

Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

Starting March 2011, read the greatest novel from an experimental master. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Last Samurai

Fall Read: The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

A group read of one of the '00s most-lauded postmodern novels. Info here. Buy the book here and support this site.

Tale of Genji

The Summer of Genji

Two great online lit magazines team up to read a mammoth court drama, the world's first novel.

Your Face Tomorrow

Your Face This Spring

A 3-month read of Javier Marias' mammoth book Your Face Tomorrow

Shop though these links = Support this site


Ten Memorable Quotes from William Gaddis’ Letters

New Books
Here are ten of my favorite moments from these hugely interesting letters.


Interviews from Conversational Reading

New Books
See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Nostalgia June 15, 2014
    Few habits are as prone to affliction, or as vulnerable to an ordeal, as the bent of a peddler’s consciousness. Placeless, the peddler completes an untold number of transactions; there are ideas to conduct (through language, which can transact a mind) and feelings to certify (through tasks, repeated interminably). […]
  • Why Literary Periods Mattered by Ted Underwood June 15, 2014
    There are some writers who are, and likely always will be, inextricably linked to the “period” with which their work is associated, and in many cases helped to define. Surely Wordsworth and Keats will always be “Romantic” poets, while Faulkner and Woolf will remain modernists, as the term “modern” has been fully appropriated to describe the historical era be […]
  • Trans-Atlantyk by Witold Gombrowicz June 15, 2014
    August 1939. You sail to Buenos Aires on the Chombry as a cultural ambassador of Poland. Why say no to a little holiday on the government’s tab? Soon after arriving you sense that something isn’t right. You emerge from a welcome reception and your ears are “filled with newspaper cries: ‘Polonia, Polonia,’ most irksome indeed.” Before you’ve even had a chance […]
  • Accepting the Disaster by Joshua Mehigan June 15, 2014
    The first collections of most young poets, even the better ones, carry with them a hint of bravado. Flush with recognition, vindicated by the encouraging attentions of at least one editor and three blurbists, the poet strikes a triumphant pose and high-fives the Muse: “We did it, baby.” When Joshua Mehigan published his impressive first collection, The Optim […]
  • The Histories of Herodotus, translated by Tom Holland June 15, 2014
    Two of the greatest of Tom Holland's predecessors in translating Herodotus are Victorian scholar George Rawlinson and Aubrey de Selincourt; the former translated Herodotus in 1860, making an enormous hit (despite the fact that its detractors often referred to it as “dull and prolix"), while the latter's 1954 Herodotus was another enormous hit, […]
  • Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue June 15, 2014
    The premise of Yasushi Inoue's debut novella Bullfight, celebrated in Japan as a classic of postwar literature, is unassuming enough: an evening newspaper sponsors a tournament of the regional sport of bull-sumo. As practical and financial issues arise, the paper's young editor-in-chief, Tsugami, soon realizes he has taken on more than he can handl […]
  • Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones June 15, 2014
    Sworn Virgin was made to be translated. Elvira Dones wrote this book not in her native language of Albanian but in Italian—a necessarily fraught and complicated decision. In an Italian-language interview with Pierre Lepori, Dones speaks about her choice of language: “Sworn Virgin was born in Italian . . . I’ve lived using Italian for nineteen years, it has s […]
  • On the Letters of David Markson June 15, 2014
    Knowing these narrators and how their lives paralleled David’s own, it’s difficult to deny his being a recluse. I certainly held that image of him, and nursed it, secretly cherishing it because it meant I was one of the few people with whom he corresponded, and with whom he would occasionally meet. Arranging our first meetings in person was something of a ni […]
  • Storm Still by Peter Handke June 15, 2014
    Storm Still (Immer Noch Sturm) does not necessarily represent new terrain for Handke. Originally published by Suhrkamp Verlag in 2010 and now available for English-language readers thanks to Martin Chalmers’ fluent translation, the play chronicles the dissolution of the Svinec family, a family of Carinthian Slovenes—a quasi-fictionalized version of Handke’s […]
  • Red or Dead by David Peace June 15, 2014
    David Peace's novel Red or Dead is about British football, but it partakes in the traits of Homer's epic. This is a novel about the place of myth and heroes in modern society, about how the cyclical rhythms of athletic seasons reflect the cyclical patterns of life. It is a book about honor and fate, and one which bridges the profound, dreamlike ter […]

Life Big Read: Things

So now that we’ve had a chance to experience a bit of Life A User’s Manual, let’s talk about one of the most distinctive things about Perec’s prose in this book: the extraordinary tangibility of it.

I don’t know about all of you, but just about every last thing described in this book feels remarkably palpable, touchable, and real to me. I think this is important. Here’s why.

To explain what I mean, let’s go back to one of Perec’s very first books, titled simply Things. This is a great, small book. It’s about two young French professionals in the ’60s who have just begun making their way in life. The book is titled Things because that’s just what the two protagonists are obsessed with–things, namely chic consumer goods. They’re torn between fully embracing consumer culture and all it represents and keeping a cool distance (and all that represents). Tellingly, Perec’s protagonists are in their late 20s, the age when one’s youthful aspirations for a romantic, bohemian life are beginning to seriously clash with one’s aspirations for a place of some status in society. The book is about how they navigate this stage of life, between a life of no-thing and a life of things.

Clearly, Perec was aware of the powerful force that could be exerted by consumer objects in a capitalistic society, as the tension in Things revolves around exactly the force that these objects emit on his youthful protagonists. It was very much a concern of the times (think, for instance, of Barthes’ Mythologies), and although Perec perhaps has a reputation for abstract, postmodern games, it’s not too much of a surprise to see that the power of things fascinated him. After all, that very postmodernism that he so well embodied goes hand in hand with a thoroughly commodified society in which objects have great symbolic value.

So what does all this have to do with Life? Well, just read the prose. You will hardly find a single object in this entire book that is not described in exquisite, incredibly precise, yet breathtakingly brief detail. Take, for instance, all the precision of detail in this list from page 43:

Lined up on top of this bookcase are various casts, an old Marianne from some town hall, large vases, three fine alabaster pyramids, whilst the five layers of shelving bow under the weight of a heap of knickknacks, curios, and gadgets: kitsch objects from a 1930s Inventors’ Exhibition: a potato-peeler, a device for stirring mayonnaise with a little cylinder that releases the oil drop by drop, a tool for fine-slicing hard-boiled eggs and another for making butter whorls, a terrifying complicated monkey wrench no doubt intended to be merely the ultimate in corkscrews; . . .

Notice how substantial Perec makes the knickknacks by telling us that the shelf bows under their weight (a memorable image; normally the only thing that can make a shelf bend is books). Notice too that he labels these things as kitsch–despite that they were the subject of a special “inventor’s exhibition.” This contrast points us toward the themes of copies, fakes, and cultural appropriation that are already rife in this book. Also note that, even though this is just a list of items, yet it’s so well defined, so varied, so intriguing. I feel as though I could read this list forever.

And that’s a good thing, because a substantial amount of space in Life A User’s Manual is taken up by descriptions of things and, frequently, the story behind them.

It’s very much worthwhile to consider why Perec describes these things in such detail and why he allows them to dominate his book. Partly, this domination is required by the conceit of the book–that it describes a single moment in Paris on June 23, 1975. Really, all a book that exists in but one moment in time can do is describe–and what better to describe than things?

Also notice how the book becomes encyclopedic with these descriptions, that is, how the things and their backstories build up a mosaic image of a postmodern, globalized culture. This is, of course, very much represented (perhaps even idealized) in Bartlebooth’s mad scheme to paint 500 ports in ever corner of the globe over the course of 20 years (and notice, again, how Perec details so many components of transnational capitalistic society in explaining how this scheme works).

So as we read, take some time to consider why things so often take center stage in this book. Think about how they function in the book, how Perec approaches them, and what the many, interconnected stories behind them might mean.

You Might Also Like:

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Welcome to the Life A User’s Manual Big Read Okay everyone, the Life A User's Manual Big Read starts today. Welcome! If you need a refresher on the schedule of reading, have a look...
  2. Life A User’s Manual Big Read Schedule In this post you'll find the reading schedule for the 2011 Life A User's Manual Big Read, plus a list of resources and books you...
  3. Spring 2011 Big Read: Life A Users Manual We have chosen our Big Read for this spring, and it is Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec. Thanks to everyone who voted. If...
  4. Life: A User's Manual In Life: A User’s Manual, Georges Perec describes a rarely visited tribe deep within Sumatra. An anthropologist is trying to understand the habits of the...
  5. The Rise of Daily Life in French Lit The new Words Without Borders blog has shot out of the box with their ongoing Perec coverage. The latest piece is an excellent, lengthy interview...

Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.

2 comments to Life Big Read: Things

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>